Feeling the financial strain

April 2022

Michelle reflects on the stigma she feels about living on benefits – and the additional pressure and stress created by the rising cost of living

Michelle has been suffering with her mental health since she was 16 – initially with depression, but she was mis-diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in her twenties and was subsequently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She suffers with bouts of depression on and off – and is currently on benefits, due to long-term mental health problems and physical health issues.

“My husband left in May 2008, just two years after my first hospitalisation due to mental health problems, and I couldn’t afford to take him to court. So we sold our house and I moved into rented accommodation in Cowfold. I worked part-time as a teaching assistant and business manager in schools, so that I could take my daughters to school. I muddled along and just about managed financially.

“But in 2015, I had to give up my job as a business manager in a school due to my mental health and I had to apply for benefits for the first time. They took three months to come through and I had to rely on food banks during that time.

“So I had to adjust to this new ‘lifestyle’, which meant focusing on making ends meet for essentials with no treats, for example, going to the cinema. Life has continued like this and I haven’t worked since.

“It’s a terrible thing to have to give up your job and live on benefits. I’ve worked since I was 16 (I’m now 54) and I was good at my job. When I was working at school as a business manager, life was difficult, but I had a sense of pride in my job, I was managing my kids and paying for everything myself. Things were ticking along. So when I had to give up work, it felt like I had the carpet whipped out from beneath me.

“You feel useless, you don’t feel like a human being. You experience lots of negativity, because there is so much stigma attached to being on benefits. I feel embarrassed about it and even now I don’t talk about it... It has a big impact on my mental health – not feeling like a productive member of society – feeling like the dregs and that is difficult.

Worry about the rising cost of living

“I’m really worried about rising prices right now. My big concern is electricity. I’ve had a letter to say that my electricity will go up by £648 a year, which is an enormous amount for me. I have rooms where my heating is never on – my bedroom and rooms downstairs – so we wear jumpers, socks and have blankets over beds to keep warm. I’ve had my heating completely turned off since the end of February.

"Food is another big concern. I have a set amount I can spend each week and in the last few months, I’ve spent more than I have allocated, because food is so expensive. I’ve cut back as far as I can. I’m always searching for price cuts and special offers. I try to eat healthily, particularly because I struggle with physical issues, but I often find myself living off the cheapest and therefore the least healthy things. Frozen vegetables are much cheaper than fresh and so a lot of my food is frozen.

“In one month, I’m finding I only have enough money for food for three out of the four weeks. For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking that I’ll have to start using food banks again for one week out of four.

"If you are having problems paying your electricity bill or your rent, you may not have the energy to fight those battles. When things are bad with your mental health, you just don’t have the energy [sometimes] to make multiple phone calls and sort things out"


“I am worried constantly. I check my bank account and my bills every day. I’m most worried about the 'what ifs' – if something happens and something unforeseen has to be paid for. When you know that this is just the beginning of the cost of living rise and that it is only going to get tougher.

“I have asked for financial advice before from Citizens Advice and from Saxon Weald, my landlord. But the problem with having long-term mental health problems is that it can get to a point where you lose touch with reality and it becomes difficult to ask for help. There is a tiny bridge between where you still feel capable of asking for help and where you are no longer capable. If you are having problems paying your electricity bill or your rent, you may not have the energy to fight those battles. When things are bad with your mental health, you just don’t have the energy to make multiple phone calls and sort things out.

“I usually feel better coming up to summer. But this year, I feel worse because of the financial strain and my worry about how we will cope financially. People across the country will be having similar conversations. The stress of this is huge. I feel like a minority, but I also feel like I shouldn’t complain.”

Michelle volunteers as a peer support worker to help others struggling with their mental health.